New GOP Primary Rules Could Empower Members
California House Republicans could wield unprecedented influence over the outcome of their state’s Feb. 5 presidential primary, thanks to a move by the state GOP to scrap the traditional winner-take-all system in favor of awarding delegates by Congressional district.
Member endorsements generally have limited utility in White House primaries. But in the race for California’s 173 Republican presidential delegates, they could hold tangible value now that the California GOP has implemented a rule awarding a candidate three delegates for every Congressional district he wins in the 2008 primary.
If the race for the GOP presidential nomination remains competitive through early February, the backing of those California House Republicans who have strong political organizations and close ties to local GOP activists could prove crucial to determining who wins their district’s delegates — as well as the delegates in neighboring Democratic districts.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has yet to back a presidential candidate, is talking with other unaffiliated California House Republicans and state legislators adjacent to his Bakersfield-area district about possibly forming an endorsement bloc. Under their plan, they would target Republican voters in GOP and nearby Democratic districts, pooling their political muscle and organizational resources on behalf of their preferred candidate.
“If a Republican Member is politically active and has a team concept with other Members, they could have synergy to influence more than just their own districts,” said McCarthy, a former Republican leader of the state Assembly who remains close to current and former state legislators.
California just moved up the date of its presidential primary from June 2008 to Feb. 5 (the nominating contests for Congressional and state legislative offices are still in June). But the change that has the most effect on the outcome and tenor of the campaign could involve the adjustment in how presidential delegates are allocated.
Florida, which is contemplating moving up its primary to Jan. 29, also awards Republican delegates proportionally by Congressional district.
According to California’s rules, 159 of the Golden State’s available 173 Republican delegates will go to the popular-vote winner of each Congressional district. All 53 seats — whether held by a Democratic or GOP Member — are worth three delegates each, regardless of how many registered Republicans live there.
Of the remaining 14 delegates to be apportioned, 11 will belong to the winner of the statewide popular vote. The last three belong to the Republican National Committeeman, the RNC committeewoman, and state GOP chairman, respectively. Those three officials are free to support the candidate of their choice.
Not everyone is sold on the notion that proportional delegate allotment will result in elevated power-broker status for Members.
In California, state Assemblymen and state Senators sometimes have even stronger political organizations than House Members, particularly when compared with a Congressman who has not had a competitive race in several years and works 3,000 miles away in Washington, D.C. Because several of California’s seats are safe, many GOP Representatives have gone years without a tough campaign.
Consequently, an endorsement from a California legislator could, in a number of instances, be more valuable than one from a House Member.
“In some of these districts, the Members are decent. But in others, it’s the state legislators that are politically connected, so it’s not all about the Congressmen,” one Republican strategist said.
Still, many political insiders believe the possibility remains for California Republican Congressmen to play a significant role in their state’s presidential nominating contest.
Jim Brulte, the former Republican leader of the state Senate who worked in 1999 and 2000 to raise money and steer prominent California Republicans into the camp of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, said the rule could turn Congressional endorsements into a commodity.
Voters are unlikely to back a presidential candidate based on the endorsement of their Congressman, Brulte conceded. But a politically engaged Member could turn loose his team of reliable grass-roots supporters on behalf of the candidate he has endorsed to whip up the backing of Republican primary voters, while providing other logistical and operational assistance.
Especially with California’s severely gerrymandered seats, Members there often compete harder in a primary contest than in a general election. They could connect the political operatives they employ for their races, and provide an entree into local GOP activist clubs and organizations, to their preferred presidential candidate.
Additionally, the proportional system might give long-shot candidates — one of whom happens to be Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) — a chance to do some damage in California’s GOP primary.
“Under this scenario, a candidate could go into just two or three media markets. So, even second-tier candidates can be competitive in California,” Brulte said. “They could go into Chico or the Central Coast media markets. They could even go into Bakersfield and dominate for not a lot of money.”
Had this procedure been implemented for California’s 2000 Republican presidential primary, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — who is running again this year — would have won delegates despite losing the statewide popular vote to Bush, Brulte said.
Republican activists first tried to have this procedure for winning delegates implemented for the 2000 presidential primary. But Brulte, fearing McCain might benefit in his primary battle with Bush, succeeded in having the state GOP pass a rule requiring the Legislature to approve the change from winner-take-all to Congressional district apportionment.
Brulte then used his power as state Senate GOP leader to bottle up in committee the bill to extend such approval. Legislative approval ultimately was granted and the rule change went into effect for the 2004 elections, though with Bush as the only Republican running for president there was no competition for California’s delegates.
Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), who represents overwhelmingly Republican territory in Orange County and has endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), predicted that this new system could motivate presidential candidates to campaign in heavily Democratic districts that contain very few GOP voters, as they are worth the same three delegates as heavily Republican districts.
When candidates examine the costs of competing for three delegates in a district with 200,000 to 300,000 Republicans versus one with 10,000 to 25,000 Republicans, they might determine that it makes more sense to target the seat with fewer GOP voters. With several media markets, advertising on television in California can be prohibitively expensive.
But targeting seats on a district-by-district basis could enable more affordable avenues for reaching voters such as direct-mail and grass-roots campaigning to play a decisive role in the race for delegates.
“You will almost get more bang for your buck if you campaign in Democratic districts, where a smaller number of voters need to be persuaded,” Campbell said. “This system takes what is normally a very expensive, big media market and breaks it down into 53 individual markets.”
Campbell said he believes this procedure for awarding delegates could turn off presidential candidates and discourage them from spending much time in California. He believes Republican primary voters would get more attention from GOP presidential candidates if the winner-take-all system had been preserved.
But with so many states moving their primaries to Feb. 5 or earlier, proponents say it could make California an attractive target — despite its size and what it costs to run a successful statewide race there.
The top three Republican presidential contenders — McCain, Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani — have their eyes on California’s 173 delegates, with aides from all three campaigns conceding that the state’s system for awarding delegates is shaping their strategy.
An operative with the Giuliani campaign said the new procedure gives an incentive for candidates to compete statewide, and “not just in Republican strongholds.” Meanwhile, an official with the McCain campaign said the “sheer size” of the state and the number of primaries being held on Feb. 5 will result in more targeted and focused voter outreach.
“You most certainly have to attack a state differently than one that uses a winner-take-all system,” said Carl Forti, Romney’s political director. “It’s just a matter of: How do you win a Congressional district? Depending on where they are and how many Republicans are in them, the strategies are different.”